America is a world leader in many ways. Unfortunately, one of these ways is in the percentage of the population in prison. According to recent statistics there are 2,319,258 Americans in prison. This is about 1% of the adult population. This puts us ahead of all other countries -even China (1.5 million in prison).
While the overall average is that 1 in 100 adults are in jail, the numbers are different when gender and race are taken into account. For all males 20-34 the number is 1 in 30. For black males in that age range, the number is 1 in 9. For women 35-39, there is 1 white woman in jail out of every 355. For black women the number is 1 in 100.
What is also of concern is the amount of tax money being spent on prisons. The national average per prisoner is $23,876 per year. Rhode Island tops the nation in spending at $44,860 and Louisiana is at the bottom with $13,009. States spend about 6.8% of their general fund budget on prisons. Four states (Vermont, Michigan, Oregon and Connecticut) spend more on corrections than they spend on higher education.
Interestingly, the increase in prison populations and spending has not been caused primarily by an increase in crime. For example, Kentucky had a 600% increase in prisoners while only experiencing about a 3% increase in crime. Thus, there must be another factor contributing to the increase.
Many experts attribute the increase to tougher sentencing. For example, the famous “three strikes” rule has lead to an increase in the time people spend in prison. An increase in sentence time increases the prison population by keeping the same people in prison longer. So, even if crime increases only a small amount (or even if it decreases somewhat), prison populations will begin to expand. To use an analogy, imagine a high school that extends the graduation time from four years to twelve. Even if the number of incoming freshmen remains the same, the school population will swell dramatically.
These numbers are rather worrisome.
First, there are the overall numbers.
While many people see prisons as a cure for crime (like a hospital is a cure for disease) this is not the case. Prisons clearly do not cure crime. If they did, America would have the lowest crime rates in the world.
However, the analogy between prisons and the hospitals does hold in one respect: having a significant number of people in either indicates something is seriously wrong. In the case of a significant hospital population, one would infer a major health problem. In the case of the prisons, it indicates a major social problem. In the case of a health problem, building more hospitals and not addressing the cause of the problem would hardly be an effective solution. While it would treat the effects of the problem, the problem itself would remain and thus would continue to put people in the hospitals. The same is true of prisons. Building more of them without addressing the causes of crime merely means we have more places to put the people who will become criminals.
Second, the disparity in terms of gender is of concern.
While women are committing more crimes now than in the past, most prisoners are men. The obvious reason is that men commit more crimes. Of course, the question remains why this is the case. Some suggest that men and women are naturally different in ways that lead more men to crime. Other suggest that it is a matter of differences in socialization. In any case, the fact is that men vastly outnumber women in the prison population.
In any other area, the feminists would be throwing a fit about such a great disparity. Obviously, most feminists do not complain about this disparity and some use it as evidence that men are bad. Interestingly, the factors that lead to the disparity in crime probably also lead to the disparity elsewhere. As Kant pointed out, the traits that enable success for good also enable “success” in what is bad-what makes the difference is the goodness or badness of the will.
Whatever the reason, the fact that men end up in prison in such disproportionate numbers does seem to indicate a problem. If it is a result of natural inclinations, ways need to be found to channel those inclinations in other ways. If it is the result of socialization, then changes would need to be made that would result in less crime. Obviously, this is not a simple problem and would require a significant investment in resources even to begin to figure out the nature of the problem. However, such an investment offers something that prisons do not-a chance to actually have less crime.
Third, the ethnic disparities raise serious concerns.
As noted above, 1 in 9 black males in the 20-34 age range are in prison. With such numbers it is no surprise that this is something that is easily noticed. For example, the majority of my black students are women. One reason why there are fewer black males in college is that a large number of college aged black men are in prison. In the case of women, the percentage of black women in prison is also significantly higher than that of white women. This raises the obvious question: why is there such a disparity?
The easy and obvious answer is that blacks commit more crimes than whites. Even if it granted that this is true (thus laying aside reasonable concerns about racial biases in convictions and sentencing) a very important question still remains: why, then, are blacks committing more crimes?
Some people might suggest that it is a matter of race-black people are more inclined to criminal activity than whites. This nicely fits into centuries of racial stereotypes, but is unsupported by any actual evidence establishing the claimed causal link between race and crime (that is to say, evidence that shows that the qualities that are supposed to make a person black also incline that person to being a criminal).
A better approach is to look beyond race and consider the factors that incline people to crime. In general, social factors (education, opportunity, etc.) have a significant effect on whether a person turns to crime or not.
In the United States, minorities are denied social goods (education, opportunity, etc. ) more so than whites. This denial helps contribute to crime in many ways. One way is that people who are denied such goods still have needs and ambitions. If these needs and ambitions cannot be satisfied by legitimate means, then people will tend to turn towards illegal means. Another way is that people who are denied such goods feel less inclined to respect and obey a system that denies them such goods. This would tend to incline people towards crime. Since minorities tend to be denied the social goods more than whites, this would account for the disparity.
Given that these social injustices contribute to crime, it makes more sense to use resources to address these problems as opposed to spending more on prisons. Diverting funds from constructive social projects (like education) to prisons merely helps ensure that more people will end up in those prisons.
This is not to say that all crime can be solved by fixing fundamental social injustices. But, it would go a long way in taking a bite out of crime.